A Fresh Look at the Video Game Time-SuckS

You're playing a game, moving from objective to objective, and suddenly you look over and… six hours have passed. Where did the time go?

I think we've all been there at one time or another. It's a situation that seems to manifest while playing video games more than other activities. I've lost hours reading a good book before, but never to quite the same extent as playing a game. According to a new study from the University of Prague, time spent playing games is directly tied to a gamer's "Time Perspective."

Originally reported in Psych Central, the study was based on the theory of "Time Perspective" put forth by Stanford's Philip Zimbardo (the same Zimbardo of the well-known Stanford Prison Experiment). Zimbardo's theory goes like this:

The initial idea of time perspective assumed the existence of three temporal frames in the human mind-past, present, and future. Within this theory, a mind can shift attention between these frames, that is, a mind can focus on past experiences (past frame), present stimuli (present frame), or anticipated future events (future frame).

Zimbardo's empirical verification of the idea brought two main findings. First, people do not use each temporal frame with equal frequency; they usually prefer one frame, which they use more often than others, and this preference is relatively stable in time.

Second, it is useful to divide both past and present frames into two independent factors (past positive and past negative; present hedonistic and present fatalistic) because they represent different mental characteristics with different correlates. Thus, five time perspective factors emerged as five personality factors.

The Prague study, named "Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking", was headed up by a researcher named Katerina Lukavska. From the study's description:

This article focuses on the relationship between the time perspective (TP) personality trait and massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) playing. We investigate the question of frequency of playing. The TP was measured with Zimbardo's TP Inventory (ZTPI), which includes five factors-past negative, past positive, present hedonistic, present fatalistic, and future. The study used data from 154 MMORPG players. We demonstrated that TP partially explained differences within a group of players with respect to the frequency of playing. Significant positive correlations were found between present factors and the amount of time spent playing MMORPGs, and significant negative correlation was found between the future factor and the time spent playing MMORPGs. Our study also revealed the influence of future–present balance on playing time. Players who scored lower in future–present balance variables (their present score was relatively high compared with their future score) reported higher values in playing time.

That's a meaty chunk of text, but the gist is that depending on where people focus their general mentality (on the present, the past, or the future), they'll play video games more or less frequently and for longer or shorter amounts of time. And the findings, generally, support the idea that players who test as future-oriented play games less than those who are present-oriented.

Interestingly, the highest playing times tended to correspond with th "present fatalistic" mindset. Quoted from Psych Central:

Present fatalistic is connected with dissatisfaction, aggression, and depression. We could hypothesize that people who spend significant time playing develop the present fatalistic orientation.

However, it is more likely that people who already are present fatalistic play more, because playing helps to decrease their negative feelings. This would support Yee's suggestion that extensive playing is an indicator of mood management.

In other words, it's likely that the study reinforces the idea that gaming is a therapeutic escape for those who feel dissatisfied and depressed. Rather than causing those feelings, people who feel that way often seek out games in order to help release tension and as a coping mechanism.

Psych Central is careful to point out that this was a single study done on 154 Czech test subjects, so we would be wise not to read too much into the results.

That said, there's a lot of good food for thought there. I find that my own temporal perspective shifts from time to time. Sometimes, I'll be focused on an event in the future, and find myself unable to sit back and let myself get swept away by an epic video game. Other times, I'm right there in the moment, and more able to focus and enjoy.

The question "why we play" is a complicated one—we writers are certainly happy enough to opine about it, but it's nice to see someone applying a little scientific method to the question as well. Guess it's time to get myself a bit more Present Fatalistic so that I won't mind losing the next few weeks of my life to Skyrim.

Losing Track of Time While Playing Video Games or Gaming [Psych Central via Game Politics]


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at kirk@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.